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May 4, 2007 9:32 PM   Subscribe

How do I find out the value of a dollar in a given year?

I read a lot of history books. For example, right now I'm reading a book on the Gold Rush. The author gives many examples of how much 49ers paid for their passages onboard ships to California, but I have no idea how much $600 was worth at that time. I was fantasizing about finding a chart with every year of US history on one axis, and the prices of staples or common expenses on the other. If that particular chart doesn't exist, can you recommend something that will give me the same basic info?
posted by serazin to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
First hit for inflation calculator will give you numbers from 1800 - 2006
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:56 PM on May 4, 2007

The above is an inflation calculator which goes back to 1800 and allows you to find the value of a dollar in any year (well, back to 1800) relative to today's dollar, or to perform the opposite function. Pretty cool, but it doesn't address the prices of specific items, just the overall trend.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:58 PM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oops, great minds think alike!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:59 PM on May 4, 2007

Best answer: Yes, the inflation calculator will give you an idea but keep in mind the inflation calculator is based on a measurement of a basket of goods that may not be wholly represented outside of that basket of goods. For instance, you could probably eat a decent breakfast for $.25 in 1940 - that quarter would be $3.51 in today's dollars which is reasonably close but that $.25 is in a diner while your $3.51 will buy you breakfast pretty much only at McD's or at a diner today, you would also have to pay taxes and a tip ... or a house in 1976 in CA for $33,000 by inflation is about $120,000 - while the actual value is in the $450,000 range so inflation calculator is off by about 300%+ ... conversely, while the price of a PC has dropped about 60%, its processing power and storage has probably increased a couple thousand %? So, depending on the time period and what you are buying, not just the value but the access to being able to buy it - for instance, most fruits and vegetables are pretty only worth what you can personally carry or won't spoil in a short period of time until the the 1950's ... or the available labor - it might cost you a quarter to take a hot bath 140 years ago but now, you want someone to personally carry hot water to you - it's probably $200 at a resort ... so it's only a minimal guideline because being able to refine gasoline before cars meant you were just distilling crude for not much reason.
posted by jbelkin at 10:13 PM on May 4, 2007

I believe the the inflation calculator gets it's data here, if you follow the links to the Bicentennial Edition they have loads of historical data. CPI and more specific price series are here, if you are willing to slog through poorly scanned pdfs (the first 15 pages are documentation, then the actual tables begin).
posted by thrako at 10:52 PM on May 4, 2007

Best answer: There are a lot of ways to calculate a dollar's buying power or worth relative to a past time period, as posters here have indicated. In fact, there is a website devoted to the idea called Measuring Worth.

The site has several different calculators, including one to compute historic purchasing power based on CPI, the GDP Deflator, the Consumer Bundle, the unskilled wage rate, the GDP per capita, and the GDP from years 1790 - 2005. The site is based on the research of two economics professors and is worth a perusal if you're at all interested in this sort of historic data.

I do remember another website devoted to the historic purchasing power of a dollar relative to individual food staples and other consumer items, but unfortunately I can't rediscover it on a quick Google search.
posted by mdevore at 11:33 PM on May 4, 2007

I think it would be more accurate to compare costs with average salaries. In 1900, for example, the average manufacturing worker was making $450 per year. At that time $600 would be very difficult to afford.

With the inflation calculator it computes as $14k in today's money which sounds easy to afford when the average salary is over $30k. Use an average salary as a better simple comparison.

The measuring worth website seems like it gives more reasonable results but you might want to calculate based on the wage or GDP per capita.
posted by JJ86 at 5:33 AM on May 5, 2007

Response by poster: All of you have had great ideas. Thanks for the inflation calculator, the source data, Measuring Worth, and everyone's advice.

I was pretty suprised to learn from Measuring Worth that the price of gold didn't change in the years before, during, or after the California gold rush. Although actually, i guess that price was somehow fixed?

Off to research the gold standard...
posted by serazin at 6:47 AM on May 5, 2007

...the price of gold didn't change...
and a dollar is still ten dimes.
Very droll.
posted by hexatron at 6:01 PM on May 5, 2007

Sure, but a dollar hasn't been worth ten silver (2.250g) dimes since 1964. Or ten 2.243g silver dimes since 1873. Or ten 2.411g silver dimes since 1853. Likewise, gold composition of coins changed three times before their end as legal currency at 1933. Even way back when, the accepted values of silver and gold could change over time. Certainly nobody would ever swap an Eagle for a sawbuck today.

Most people are used to the global use of purely fiat currency, so it's easy to forget, or not know, that the dollar's value was once pegged to a certain amount of metal as decreed by the government.
posted by mdevore at 6:38 PM on May 5, 2007

mdevore said: Most people are used to the global use of purely fiat currency, so it's easy to forget, or not know, that the dollar's value was once pegged to a certain amount of metal as decreed by the government.

There even was a time when banks wouldn't give you face value for worn gold or silver coins. They would weigh them and only give you actual value. If the coin was well worn then you might get much less than face value.
posted by JJ86 at 3:20 AM on May 6, 2007

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